by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports

I have no problem with Manu Ginobili being ranked 31st on the SLAMonline Top 50. Age, injuries and male pattern baldness have definitely taken their toll on the man. And yet, if we were making a list of NBA players who keep opposing coaches awake at night come Playoff time, sucking their thumbs and clutching their blankies, Manu, despite looking every day of his 35 years, is without question in the top five.

What is it that’s made this spindly, 6-6, 200-pound sixth man with average hops so devastating to the nerves of opponents? It’s not his size, speed or otherworldly athleticism. It’s not even fearing the glare of those three Championship rings. In a word, it’s soccer. Manu is the master of applying to hoops, three cornerstones of the beautiful game. He’s a master at these three soccer staples to such a degree, his fellow Argentinian Lionel Messi probably festers with secret jealousy.

The first is, of course, flopping. If an opposing player so much as breathes on Manu, he’ll fall to the ground and twitch like Sonny Corleone at a deserted tollbooth. Everyone knows it. Everyone waits for it. Yet somehow, like a Jedi Mind Trick—if Jedis were really, really lame—he convinces the ref that they actually saw a foul. You might as well call David Stern’s recent czarist fiat against flopping the “Ginobili Rule.”

Manu’s second sense of soccer is evident in how he uses his two steps in one of his whirling dervish drives to the hoop. Manu wrings every last bit of capital from those two steps. He moves right, he moves left, he moves up, down, over and under. He does everything but the tango and he’s snapped more ACL’s than Bernard Pollard.

Possibly Dwyane Wade is the current master of this technique, but every time Wade goes to the hole, he should pay Manu royalties.

The third soccer element is what he does to the ball on one of those drives once he is airborne. Just as the best soccer players “bend” the ball, making in defy physics like a Yul Darvish curve, Manu spins the ball off the glass in wondrous ways and from ridiculous angles. Once it kisses the backboard, he can make the spinning globe bend and fall right through the hoop. He part Maravich, part Gervin, and part Minnesota Fats.

But the number one reason that Manu makes opposing coaches weep for their mommies come Playoff time, is that he’s that special “once a decade” kind of clutch. He’s not clutch like Kobe or Melo in isolation, down one with the clock counting down. He’s clutch the way Reggie Miller was clutch. He’s clutch the way only possibly Kevin Durant today is clutch. If you are up 11 with three minutes left, you don’t feel safe as long as Manu is on the court. He’ll hit a three, steal the ball, get an and one and then you’re up five with an all-of-a-sudden terrifying two minutes, 56 seconds to play.

We can agree with putting Manu at 31 on this list, as long as we also agree that when it really counts, he’s without question in the top-five. He wins and then leaves you furious and cursing his name… and then contemplating how you can steal his moves. The flop, the two step, the spinning of the ball. And always clutch. Maybe Manu can be imitated, but never duplicated.


Where should Manu Ginobili rank in the SLAMonline Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Greg MonroePistonsC8
49Tyreke EvansKingsPG14
48Brandon JenningsBucksPG13
47Stephen CurryWarriorsPG12
46Ricky RubioTWolvesPG11
45Al JeffersonJazzPF14
44Anthony DavisHornetsPF13
43Serge IbakaThunderPF12
42Al HorfordHawksC7
41Ty LawsonNuggetsPG10
40Danny GrangerPacersSF6
39Tim DuncanSpursPF11
38John WallWizardsPG9
37Monta EllisBucksSG8
36Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF10
35Roy HibbertPacersC6
34Tyson ChandlerKnicksC5
33Eric GordonHornetsSG7
32Kevin GarnettCelticsPF9
31Manu GinobiliSpursSG6

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.